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Pilot Project Integrates Oral Health in Hospitals

Dental hygienists, who have expanded practice permits allowing them to practice without a dentist present, are improving the lives of patients at Samaritan hospital, one tooth at a time. 

Since 2020, a hygienist with Capitol Dental has been working at the Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital alongside doctors, nurses and other clinicians to assess and treat patients, make referrals and provide oral health education. 

Recognizing how oral health affects overall wellness, InterCommunity Health Network Coordinated Care Organization Delivery System Transformation committee funded a hygienist from Capitol Dental to work at the hospital and provide oral health services, education and patient navigation. 

With overwhelming positive results, including developing a process to integrate oral health services in hospitals, the pilot stands as a model for others to replicate. 

“To our knowledge, the collaboration with Samaritan was the first and is the only one in Oregon to offer dental hygiene services in a hospital setting,” said Linda Mann, director of Capitol Dental. “It would be fantastic to have expanded practice dental hygienists working in every hospital.” 

Before, hospital patients did not always receive oral health care, and many went without dental care for years. Now, everyone from new moms in the labor and delivery department, to people receiving treatment for cancer and diabetes to patients intubated with serious conditions are benefiting. 

Additionally, when a hygienist is available, they can assist with triaging patients who present with dental issues in the emergency department, providing assessments and referrals for follow up care.

“Having an expanded practice dental hygienist has been a huge benefit for the hospital and patients,” said Wendie Wunderwald vice president of Patient Care Services at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital. 

The hygienist also has educated hospital staff, who are primarily focused on the medical aspects of care. Alexa Blake is a speech language pathologist with Samaritan and worked alongside the hygienist. Access to dental care can be restrictive in rural communities, due to transportation, finances or difficulty finding a dentist. 

“Having a hygienist on site makes it so convenient,” Blake said. 

The collaboration between physical and oral health isn’t a new idea in rural Linn County. The idea began with an arrangement between Capitol Dental and Sweet Home Family Medicine, where an expanded practice dental hygienist has worked alongside clinicians for more than seven years. 

Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital CEO Marty Cahill was eager to become the first to integrate oral health in a hospital setting and is pleased to share the results with others. IHN CCO and Capitol Dental continued funding for the program in Lebanon. 

And the program has been replicated by Capitol Dental at Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln City and by Advantage Dental Care at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport. The coastal hospital programs are funded through a federal grant. 

“The program is growing in ways that we did not expect,” Cahill said. “It’s been very positive.”